William Cameron Menzies is out of his mind

…in a nice way, of course.

It’s easy to see why, in the face of all the evidence, people always assumed INVADERS FROM MARS was shot in 3D. Menzies’ particular way with deep focus and forced-perspective sets, coupled with extreme angles and discombobulating editing, make his films seem like 3D extravaganzas even when they’re not. Or rather, like 3D extravaganzas viewed under the influence of certain psychoactive ¬†mushrooms.

(WCM did make a proper 3D film, the Scottish-set monsterpiece THE MAZE, whose plot synopsis, were I to attempt writing one, would surely melt your minds and cause them to flow down the backs of your necks. So I won’t do it, OK?)

ADDRESS UNKNOWN is a striking bit of wartime agit-prop, with an epistolary narrative that seems designed to defeat dramatization. But Menzies, unperturbed, just spews deep, off-kilter compositions all over the screen and makes us like it. Every minute or so there’s another “WOW” moment, and sometimes they follow directly on top of each other until you feel like tiny bombs are detonating in your frontal lobes.

It’s PVE!

Against all this, Paul Lukas and Peter Van Eyck both do pretty well at holding the eye where it belongs, when our natural response is often to go skittering off around the edges of the frame, looking for rational angles. Lukas, a really terrific actor, is especially fine, humanizing a monstrous character without asking for sympathy. His is a bad guy activated by weakness rather than malice, but weakness is next door to wickedness in the dyslexic dictionary of vice.

A real 3D moment, as Nazis come bursting through the screen at us!

I’m thinking that I’ve overestimated Sam Wood as director, because his terrific IVY, produced and designed by Menzies, bears all the visual hallmarks of this film, and none of Wood’s other work (apart from those Menzies designed). Still, Wood did have good taste in scripts, and maybe more interest in performance than WCM.

This piece might have been longer, but as I was taking my time with it, David Bordwell posted an awesome essay/history/appreciation of The Great Man. I’m thrilled to be a footnote in it, referencing my review of IVY. I’d urge you all to read it, and of course bookmark DB’s astounding blog if you somehow haven’t already.

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31 Responses to “William Cameron Menzies is out of his mind”

  1. david wingrove Says:

    There are three great auteurs at work in IVY. First is Cameron Menzies, who appears to have designed the whole film frame by frame. Second is Joan Fontaine, who plays someone thoroughly evil for a change – and turns out to be ominously well cast. Third is the great cameraman Rusell Metty, of whom Joan still speaks in glowing terms. “He was a genius!”

    As far as I can make out, all Sam Wood did was turn up and yell ‘Action!’ from time to time. He may then have gone home and reported eveybody to the House Un-American Activities Committee (he was allegedly a raging right-winger) but that’s a whole other story.

  2. Oh, Wood was pretty extreme, supposedly required his heirs to take a loyalty oath before they could inherit — still witch-hunting after death! I doubt he’d have found much to report about Joan though.

  3. David Boxwell Says:

    Bordwell is good at delineating how crucial to the success of Wood’s films between 1940-3 (FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS, KING’S ROW, OUR TOWN) WCM really was. I assume Menzies had enough control over casting so that Wood’s daughter was (mis)cast in ADDRESS UNKNOWN, as further proof of close personal and professional collaboration.

    THE MAZE: Ribbit! Truly demented stuff.

  4. The Maze, for all its idiocy, has one of my favourite 3D effects right at the start, as the narrator lady advances slowly upon the camera, narrating away, looming larger and larger. Hilarious and creepy. And then at the end there’s the giant frog falling into the camera, “A new low in taste” as Scorsese said of Jaws 3D.

  5. And here’s the musical version!

  6. From left field…
    I haven’t seen any of these films, so I really shouldn’t be commenting…

    but the post makes me wonder if Menzies was any kind of influence, consciously or subconsciously, on Stanley Kubrick. Not so much for the camera angles, but more of the way architecture becomes a player in the film. I find Menzies very HG Wells- ian, and Kubrick could be labeled a post- Wells-ian.

  7. Randy Byers Says:

    Yeah, that Bordwell piece is terrific, and Dave Kehr has written some great stuff about Menzies lately too. Nice to see him getting some love.

    The two Talmadge sisters “collections” released by Kino recently are something of a Menzies mini-fest. He was art director on both of the Constance Talmadge films and is credited with “settings” on Norma’s KIKI. Some really great design work. IMDb only credits him on Constance’s HER SISTER FROM PARIS, so I was surprised by the treasures I discovered when I watched the movies. KIKI is directed by Clarence Brown, and his pictorial talents make great use of Menzies’ settings.

  8. The angles DO have a Kubrickian quality, though, because SK, like WCM, had a love of both wide-angle lenses and obsessively symmetrical compositions. And yet SK hated Things to Come, which he saw on Arthur C Clarke’s recommendation while researching 2001. “I’m never watching anything you recommend again!” he declared.

    That Talmadge set sounds great. I recently enjoyed WCM’s work on Son of the Sheik also — he only has tents and sand to work with, for the most part, but he sculpts them both beautifully.

  9. The whole film’s on You Tube

  10. And on a very nice DVD from MoC! Hard to work out exactly what Kubrick disliked so much — the film does seem to anticipate his interest in monumental compositions and odd performances…

  11. I would think that he disliked HG Wells. Not so much the form of the film, but the content.

    Thanks for clarifying about the camera angles. Not knowing the Menzies films, I was cautious with my comments, but I thought it would be an interesting comparison to bring up.

    Thanks for the Kubrick/ Clarke anecdote.

  12. Christopher Says:

    ..nearly got MY Death Ray perfected..and boy am I gonna use it!

  13. I just watched GONE WITH THE WIND on Blu-ray earlier this week and was all ready to comment on how much of a Menzies film it really was … but Bordwelll beat me to the punch. (Great article by the way. Thanks for the link!)

    Selznick supplied the feeling and the attitude, but the visual style is predominantly and unmistakeably Menzies. With the notable exception of that famous crane shot of the Atlanta wounded which was apparently Val Lewton’s idea.

  14. Christopher Says:

    gee Richard,I didn’t recognize you without my 3D Glasses…
    aw come on..lets see the FROG!

  15. Awesome — wish I’d had that trailer to draw upon in 3D Week.

    Richard Carlson was Mr 3D! Just enjoyed a youthful RC in Siodmak’s amusing Hitchcock swipe Fly by Night.

  16. Chandu is a pretty striking thing, even if it’s not actually a good movie or anything. I love how the most spectacular sequence is Lugosi’s purely hypothetical vision of how his death ray will work. Nothing so spectacular ever HAPPENS in the movie.

    My next Menzies job may be Bulldog Drummond, or maybe Alibi, both of which look spectac.

  17. Christopher Says:

    I like Richard Carlson..whats to dislike?…Hes just a reg’lar fella..I’ve been enjoying some of his earlier stuff again lately..Too Many Girls..Hold That Ghost …

  18. Carlson is also one of the drones buzzing around Hedy Lamarr in what might be her sexiest movie, the delirious WHITE CARGO.

  19. By which I mean her sexiest *Hollywood* movie.

  20. Randy Byers Says:

    Perhaps our host could tell us his opinion of Carlson’s Scottish accent in THE YOUNG IN HEART? Speaking of movies with terrific Menzies design work …

  21. Christopher Says:

    I used to get Carlson mixed up with Hugh Marlow.You could switch them out in any 50s Sci-Fi and noone would be the wiser I don’t think..Carlson,Marlow and John Agar..The Three Amigos of sci-fi…They’d a been great in a Men In Black type movie..

  22. David Boxwell Says:

    Don’t, whatever you do, David Cairns, attempt to listen to Carlson’s “Scottish” accent in Brahm’s BENGAZI (55). . . (it will make your ears bleed).

  23. David Boxwell Says:

    Hugh Marlowe was married to K.T. Stevens, who debuted in ADDRESS UNKNOWN, so we are back to Square One . . .

  24. I’m very excited at the idea of Carlson talking Scots! Will seek out those movies at once. Seems like he made a habit of it, just like appearing in 3D movies. A shame he didn’t become the first three dimensional Scot on screen–that honour would go to Nigel Bruce in Bwana Devil!

    Carlson has the edge on Agar because he can do likable if required. Good voice, too, which coarsened with age, making him stronger. Marlow I’ve completely forgotten, but Agar had a quite unappealing quality that somehow seeped through every role.

  25. Christopher Says:

    being known as Mr. Shirley Temple didn’t help I suppose…He and Ed Wood were drinking buddies later on i hear..arrrrrr!

  26. Jordan Benedict Says:

    When Menzies was working on the production designs for THINGS TO COME, Korda suggested he take a look at some of the designs and artwork of Laslo Maholy-Nagy. This Hungarian refugee was the protege of Walter Gropius at the Weimar Bauhaus. Like so many other talents who saw the writing on the wall in the 1930s, Maholy fled Germany in the nick of time and made it to England safely. To keep busy, he took whatever job he could get, not least creating what we call picture windows for one of the leading department stores in London. Up until Maholy’s daring design, display windows were quite small and similar in size to the picture frame format favored by Tiffany & Co. Menzies was impressed, not only by Maholy’s gigantic windows but also his portfolio of artwork and interest in experimental films. Maholy went to work for Menzies and contributed a number of design elements which appear in the second half of the film, though he was never credited for his participation.

    After the second war, Maholy moved to the United States and started the New Bauhaus in Chicago. Still fascinated by design, art and film, he made a short entitled BLACK, WHITE & GREY and this experimental gem was to have a profound effect on another filmmaker years later named Stanley Kubrick, who acknowledged Maholy as the genesis for the stargate sequence in 2001.

    JMB

  27. Wow, thanks! Seems like Tom was REALLY onto something! Some very nice LMN images online, I recommend googling them for those who are curious.

  28. Thanks, David

    Jordan, That’s a great piece of information about Moholy-Nagy,… and Kubrick.

  29. Just been watching Fairbanks’ Thief of Bagdad again and am suddenly (and very belatedly) struck by WCM’s very obvious influence on Dr. Seuss. Actually influence seems almost too small a word: Suess’ worlds seem direct caricatures of childhood memories of WCM’s, and the imagery in some of his books, the landscapes resembling impossibly vast stages, the wobbly parades, feathers everywhere, seven men to a gong, is pretty much identical. Golly!

  30. Yes! And you can see similar visions in Beloved Rogue, the early stages of the warped minaret syndrome he gets into with ToB.

    The movie The Five Thousand Fingers of Dr T, which is kind of a masterpiece, brings it full circle back to the cinema.

    Let’s not forget Mitchell Leisen who made the costumes for Thief.

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